Decline or stagnation? What's the word for what our country, our culture, our civilization is undergoing? Ross Douthat’s...
Why I Am a Conservative: Symposium
This essay appears as part of a symposium published in the Summer 2007 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
“To the extent that it is still possible to be a good American citizen and a good person living in the
United States something of moral value remains in our public lives. Conserving that is of central concern
to conservatives, and everything else pales in comparison. … “
In 1977 I invited Eric Voegelin to write an original paper for a symposium that I was organizing with William Corrington on the topic “Gnosticism and Modernity.” Voegelin replied by letter dated July 20, 1977: “As a matter of principle, I write papers only on problems in science, not on topics.” Voegelin did not write a paper for that conference held at Vanderbilt University, but he did attend the conference and he gave a moving ad hoc commentary on an event he called “one of the best conferences I have attended.”¹ Apparently Voegelin’s admonition that I write on problems in science not topics was lost on me because here I am accepting the editor’s appeal for essays on the topic “Why I am a conservative.” I write on this topic out of respect for Modern Age and my fellow conservatives.
What is this conservatism with which I have been identified since attending my first ISI summer school forty-six years ago?
Ask that question of a British Tory and you’ll get a reply that is different from one given by an American—even if the Tory you query is a Thatcherite Conservative. And the same will be the case of Spanish, Italian, German and French conservatives. These differences tell us that conservatism is an attitude—not an “ism”—and a disposition of mind toward government, politics, and tradition, not a philosophy of government or a systematic political theory. If not an ideology, a philosophy nor a political theory, then there is no universal conservatism about which to write. What we are discussing is an artifact, a cultural development, that in the case of those participating in this symposium began in America in response to the growth of the administrative state and which we can address by reflection on its history and the problems it addresses.
For that reason, this discussion reflects my training as a political theorist by Stanley Parry, Gerhart Niemeyer, Eric Voegelin and requires that I reflect upon my experience of things political, cultural, and moral in America today. Sometimes my professional judgments and my personal attitudes point me in the same direction, but the conservative part of me deals with practical matters, things more immediate and relevant to my “little platoon” of family and local community and touches also upon my social existence as a citizen of the United States. I can reflect upon and interpret my experience as a conservative while acting as a political theorist, but that critical role is analytical whereas being a conservative engages me “in my hips” to use Willmoore Kendall’s phrase, i.e., my practical life.
While an undergraduate seeking to understand America’s drift toward collectivism, I was able to meet and become friends with Frank Meyer. The encounter with Meyer occurred at a time when he was developing his theory of conservative “fusionism.” I later realized that fusionism is theoretically deficient, and more an ideological construct rather than a philosophic one, yet it resonated thenand today-with many American conservatives who want conservatism to become a force in American society and politics much like the ideology of liberalism with which they have contended. That construction of conservatism by Frank Meyer is an ideology, a making of abstractions that are imposed on reality rather than a reflection of our conservative folkways. That is not to say that my kind of conservative does not value freedom. I do.
We conservatives believe that community in all its efflorescence takes precedence over the abstract “individual,” and that our commonly shared experience of the common good is the basis of social order, not the individual in the abstract. We do not think that maximizing the freedom of the abstract individual is the goal of society. Freedom of individuals is an abstract value, admirable in the abstract, but necessarily limited by other considerations, such as the freedom of American citizens. Mario Pei, one of the great linguists of the last century, thought that Frank Meyer’s fusionist construction was solipsistic.² By that he meant the only reality that Frank Meyer brought to his speculations was his own willful making of that reality.
Understanding reality requires that we discuss our experience of reality in all its aspects, which includes the material aspects of life, the Presocratics’ insight into the process of the genesis, growth, and death of “existent things” (ta onta), and the discovery that the arche of all this is transcendent reality (to on) which they understood was divine (to theion). This radical break with previous mythic formulations that shaped the culture of ancient Greece shaped the West and contributes even to this day to the uniqueness of how we understand the world and our place in it. The discovery of the soul (psyche) as the locus where transcendence is experienced unleashed the experiential differentiation that separates us from other cultures—and makes the civilization of the West superior.
When I wear my conservative hat here is what I see: we conservatives and our allies the libertarians are threatened by one main adversary to our social order and the precious freedom of American citizens—the administrative state—and we share a sense that the public spaces of our beloved America are being closed, constricted, and our lives deprived of opportunity and of freedoms that previous generations enjoyed.
Let me focus on that by reference to the growth of the administrative state—my experience of the decline of public order today even as the state grows in power—by way of a visit to Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community.3 Nisbet wrote The Quest for Community in 1953 and there he reflects upon the growth of the function and reach of the centralized administrative state. “The centralization and bureaucratic regimentation which have always been native to organized warfare are, in the twentieth century, extended to widening areas of social and cultural life. War symbolism and the practical techniques of war administration have come to penetrate more and more of the minor areas of social function and allegiance.”4 Beginning with the Civil War that is now construed as a Second Founding that overcame the inequalities of the original Founding, followed by America’s ideologically-driven entry into World War I, then World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the War in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the invasion of Afghanistan and of Iraq and what is called the War on Terror the centralized bureaucratic state by which America is administered is in its primacy.5
World War II shaped a generation by giving it a reason to be patriotic, organizing isolated men and women into a cohesive military force, infused them with esprit, and demonstrated how collective action could achieve great deeds. Not only did they return to civilian life accepting what the state can do for them, they lived longer than previous generations and dominated American politics until the defeat of George Herbert Walker Bush by William Jefferson Clinton. This generation has not yet passed from the scene, and they constitute an important cheering section for another war, the wholesale invasion of personal communications, limitations placed on opening new bank accounts, talk of renewal of universal conscription, creation of a national police force that arrogantly protects us from terrorists when we travel, additional passport requirements, and the constant war chants emanating from the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, mass media Talk Radio, and jingoistic essays in supposedly “conservative” publications.
All this suggests that not only is the legal apparatus of the bureaucratic state in very good health but also the spirit that drives its appetite for new freedoms to devour is very much alive.
Nisbet, writing in 1953, could say that “The contemporary State, with all its apparatus of bureaucracy, has become more powerful, more cohesive, and is endowed with more functions than at any time in history.”6 Today we deal not only with pre–World War II statist bureaucracies founded during the Progressive era, the New Deal and World War II. We even cripple private enterprise and make ourselves subservient to the task of feeding the state by withholding income to pay state and federal taxes and contributions to Ponzi schemes for “retirement.” On a daily basis, we must deal with entities created by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Clinton, and Bush Administrations.
One lone political figure in the seventy-five years from 1932 to 2007 stands out as having opposed his own generation by making jokes of bureaucrats: “I’m from Washington, D.C., and I’m here to help you.”
Nisbet writes, “… the whole tendency of modern political development has been to enhance the role of the political State as a direct relationship among individuals, and to bring both its powers and its services ever more intimately into the lives of human beings.”7
Conservatives oppose this growth of state power because it subtly transfers our allegiances from home and hearth to a power far removed from where we live our daily lives. “We are forced to the conclusion,” Nisbet writes, “that a great deal of the peculiar character of contemporary social action comes from the efforts of men to find in large-scale organizations the values of status and security which were formally gained in the primary associations of family, neighborhood, and church.”8 As conservatives we fear the invasive entry of the state into our private lives. “Feelings of moral estrangement,” Nisbet writes, “of the hostility of the world, the fear of freedom, of irrational aggressiveness, and of helplessness before the simplest of problems have to do … with the individual’s sense of the inaccessibility of this area of relationship.”9
Reflect, for example, on the disengagement of young people from voting in elections, from loyalty to their employers, and estrangement from their churches and synagogues. Living in the face of an omnipotent state they feel that the system is rigged, that their voices and complaints are not heard, and that they are asked to support a generation of elder citizens who gave them institutions that will drain every cent they earn, deny them the ability to save for their own retirement, and indenture them to new schemes that add to the glory of the state such as the exploration of Mars!
As “religion, personal authority, and customary obligation” conflict with “reason, impersonal law, and individual rights” the functions performed by church and family become detached from “functional relevance” to the larger economy and civil society.10 Nisbet observes that this overall trend is what takes place in native cultures when impacted by Western civilization. Consider, for example, your own experience with the many Indians from India living in the West that you have encountered. After hundreds of years of British colonial rule Western rationalism replaced Hindu religion and left them with what? Jobs as computer programmers? De-Hinduized Indians occupy Western cities and become absorbed in modern secular culture that even we in the West are uncomfortable living in.
As “religion, personal authority, and customary obligation” conflict with “reason, impersonal law, and individual rights” the functions performed by church and family become detached from “functional relevance” to the larger economy and civil society.11 Nisbet observes that this overall trend is what takes place in native cultures when impacted by Western civilization. Consider, for example, your own experience with the many Indians from India living in the West that you have encountered. After hundreds of years of British colonial rule Western rationalism replaced Hindu religion and left them with what? Jobs as computer programmers? De-Hinduized Indians occupy Western cities and become absorbed in modern secular culture that even we in the West are uncomfortable living in.
Perhaps that is what modern American living today consists of—being uncomfortable—with the symbols of Imperial order, the bureaucratization of daily life, the emptiness of our culture, the selfish interests served by our politicians, leading us to grasp for spiritual nourishment in secular religions ( often endorsed by the state), political parties and movements, religious cults, “having fun,” playing hard, and, of course, sexual promiscuity, recreational drugs, and alcoholic binge-drinking. Many of these pursuits commence at institutions of higher learning and we continue them throughout our empty lives.
That is the central cultural, moral, spiritual, and political concern of American conservatives today and which holds those of us who are conservative together not as participants in a “movement” but as pilgrims whose souls respond to the presence of the good in human existence, and our search for ways to live lives as good citizens and good men. To the extent that it is still possible to be a good American citizen and a good person living in the United States something of moral value remains in our public lives. Conserving that is of central concern to conservatives, and everything else pales in comparison to this central concern.
How, then, do we successfully save a public space for ordered living? First, of course, we must educate ourselves in the wonderful literature of the West and in the recovery of philosophy that émigré conservative scholars from Western Europe brought to this nation when they were exiled from West, East, and Central Europe. And once having educated ourselves, we can commence the work that is necessary to preserve and grow private institutions—including private colleges and universities—voluntary associations, privately held businesses that employ family members, and other forms of community—including churches and synagogues-that traditionally act as buffers between our private lives and the centralized administrative state. And we must break up the monopoly of public education!
We must also aspire to enlarge and enrich civil society by reducing the scope of governmental agencies, programs, corps, and their intrusive oversight of our private lives. Can we not have a flat tax? And what about privatization of Social Security and the FM’s air traffic control? A consistent policy of outsourcing of government services that can best be performed by the private sector must become basic policy of the American government. And the Republican Party, if there is one left after the election of 2008, must take tax reform seriously, including capital gains tax reform. At the margins of this effort to reduce the state, we must ask if there is any reason why our national historical parks should not be turned over to private entities committed to the preservation of history? When I visit King’s Dominion, Busch Gardens, or Six Flags I see what private enterprise can do to entertain thousands of persons daily. But visit Bunker Hill, Appomattox, or Yorktown Battlefield, and you see 1950s technology and the mentality of government wardens.
And how much longer must I endure the many Presidential Libraries that archive the papers of the Imperial Presidency when new technologies enable entire libraries to be stored on one computer chip and made available for public access in cyberspace? My bank gives me access to facsimiles of my checks; why can not presidential papers be converted to electronic files? Indeed, why allow the building of these monuments to the Imperial Presidency? And, really, must we continue Woodrow Wilson’s practice of Presidents giving “State of the Union” messages in person to the combined Houses of Congress? Just send us an e-mail message! We will get back to you.
In searching for mentors to lead us in this recovery of the private sector we must look to authentic conservatives such as Robert Nisbet, Gerhart Niemeyer, Eric Voegelin, Stanley Parry and others known to the readers of Modem Age. Nisbet writes in The Quest for Community, for example, “I plead … for anew laissez faire, one concerned, not with imaginary economic atoms in a supposed legal void, but with the groups and associations that we are given in experience. …”
1. Discussion with Eric Voegelin in Nashville, Tennessee, at conclusion of Vanderbilt Symposium on Gnosticism and Modernity. Correspondence of Eric Voegelin with Richard Bishirjian, July 20, 1977, in possession of Dr. Bishirjian and at the Hoover Institution. 2. Discussion with Mario Pei at the University of Pittsburgh in 1963. 3. Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1953, The Quest for Community has been reprinted by JCS Press (1990). (Hereinafter referred to as Quest.) 4. Quest, 41. 5. “The centralization and bureaucratic regimentation which have always been native to organized warfare are, in the twentieth century, extended to widening areas of social and cultural life. War symbolism and the practical techniques of war administration have come to penetrate more and more of the minor areas of social function and allegiance.” Ibid., 41. 6. Ibid., 48. 7. Ibid., 49. 8. Ibid., 49. 9. Ibid., 51. 10. Ibid., 54. 11. Ibid., xix.
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